Authority and Its Meaning

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authority2by R. Tzvi Spitz

One point in the discussion of women’s ordination has been the definition of authority (serarah), which according to most halakhic authorities (with a notable exception) is forbidden to women. The definition of authority has suffered from ambiguity. Far from the heat of this topic, contemporary scholar R. Tzvi Spitz offers a clear and useful definition in his discussion of monetary issues of the synagogue. How and whether to apply this to women’s ordination as rabbis is a separate discussion. We offer here a loose translation of this important text, not reviewed by the author. The original Hebrew can be found in Mishpetei Ha-Torah, vol. 3 no. 38 -ed.

“Authority” and Its Meaning

Question: What is the meaning of the concept “authority” and what are the particular halachot that pertain to this topic?

Answer:

  1. An authoritative position is considered one in which a person functions on behalf of a community and the community accedes to him with the understanding that he has the power to act according to his own judgment for their benefit, even against the will of others. Similarly, a position that carries an honored title, which is recognized in that community is a position of “authority.” [1]The laws of “authority” and the many details related to it are very spread out and depend, in each field and each place, on the existing customs there and many additional details. Therefore, we … Continue reading
  1. It is irrelevant if the leader was chosen by the community or attained the position himself and only later the community came to accept him. There is also no difference if he accepts a salary for his work or works for free.
  1. When the position is considered a position of “authority,” he may not be fired against his will, unless he has abused his power. In Torah positions such as gabbai of a shul or the administrator of a charity fund etc. it is possible to fire him if there are clear proofs (and not only rumors) that he intentionally violated a Torah or rabbinic prohibition, even if it did not relate to his particular position and he faithfully fulfilled his official duties.
  1. Positions of “authority” can be inherited perpetually. The power of “authority” passes through inheritance on the condition that his descendant is God-fearing and capable of understanding how to do the work. Even if he will require training at the outset this will not cause him to lose the position, rather we must hire a teacher for him to teach him. However, if he is not a God-fearing person, even if he is a great scholar – he may not inherit the position.
  1. In places where the custom is that after a certain time different people take over these types of positions, or it is the custom to hold elections from time to time for these positions, the occupants of these positions do not have standing and cannot pass the position on to their descendants.
  1. A person who serves in an important position like the administrator of a unit where all the members of that unit are subject to his orders, however, he is also constrained by the orders of the administrator of the institution or the owner of the factory or the board of directors etc., especially if there are conditions of his employment which are based on the generally accepted practices of employer/employee relations- then the position is not considered one of “authority.” Rather, he is considered like an employee with a senior position and he is like any other worker. Therefore, following the current reality, jobs such as ritual slaughterers in large slaughter houses, kashrut supervisors, teachers in schools, lecturers in yeshivot (who are subject to the administration of the yeshiva or the administrators of the units or departments), administrators of branches of banks, or gabbaim of shuls or administrators of charity funds etc. who are appointed for a limited time or through elections for a certain number of years are not considered positions of “authority.”

    On the other hand, jobs such as Rosh Yeshiva, Rav of a shul, neighborhood or city, a lecturer in a synagogue who was chosen with no time limit or condition limiting his position, or the community came to them on their own, and so too a gabbai or administrator of an organization or institution etc. who founded it and developed it – their positions are considered positions of “authority” and include all the rights detailed above.

 

Endnotes

Endnotes
1The laws of “authority” and the many details related to it are very spread out and depend, in each field and each place, on the existing customs there and many additional details. Therefore, we will cite only part of the relevant sources: Rambam (Hilchot Klei Mikdash 4:20, Hilchot Melachim 1:7), Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 493), Beit Yosef and Rema Orach Chaim (53) in the name of Teshuvat HaRashaba, Rema Yoreah Deah (245:22), Magen Avraham Orach Chaim (53:33). Responsa: Maharshdam (Yoreh Deah 85), HaElef Lecha Shlomo (Yoreh Deah 260), Divrei Chaim (v. 2, end of section 32), Chatam Sofer (Choshen Mishpat 22), Avnei Nezer (Yoreh Deah 312), Kochav MiYaakov (125), Imrei Yosher (v. 1, 121) and more.

About Tzvi Spitz

8 comments

  1. How is a shul Rav different from a Gabbai? In contemporary America, most rabbis are under contract for a limited term and/or serve at the pleasure of the Board of Trustees, if not the general membership.

    • I’m not sure what you find unclear about this sentence:

      On the other hand, jobs such as Rosh Yeshiva, Rav of a shul… who was chosen with no time limit or condition limiting his position, or the community came to them on their own…

  2. this is a little unclear, it seems to suggest that only inheritable positions constitute serra. that would make the concept largely irrelevant in most modern situations.

    • I would rephrase that as positions of serarah should be inheritable, assuming the descendant is capable and worthy. I think most modern situations ignore this because most sons are not capable and worthy. But I can think of cases in which a son took over a rabbinate from his father (e.g. Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills).

  3. R. Gil: If your reading is correct, then the translation is poor; it makes it sound as though “chosen with no time limit” applies only to the lecturer, not to the Rosh Yeshiva or Rav. (Indeed, if it had the meaning you are ascribing to it, then lecturer should have been preceded by “or” so that “chosen with no time limit” would apply to all preceding categories.) as translated, it seems to say that Rav of a shul is categorically a position of serara.

  4. But the whole thing is strange. Even when sons do take for their fathers, most shuls and yeshivos don’t recognize this as a right. In not a few cases I am aware of the son was capable, but the shul didn’t want him.

    He simply isnt addressing the issue in a way that is helpful for dealing with contemporary practice.

    Also I would add RAL z’ls repeated argument that while in theory there is a wide range of positions on Serra, many of which would potentially limit female’s in positions of religious leadership, it was clear to him that the RZ zionist community has accepted the most lenient positions which they have applied to allowing women to serve in the highest levels of gevernment. as such arguments from serra against women in positions of power in the RZ/MO world dont really hold water.

  5. As a practical matter in the US religious non profit institutions could not legally be set up restricting leadership to one family. It would then become a corporation for private benefit which by definition could be a charitable corporation.
    Of interest is the Chevra Shas of Boston had annual meetings where they would vote to have the Rav give shiurim for the next year.

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